Ben Gook, Divided Subjects, Invisible Borders: Re-Unified Germany After 1989, Rowman & Littlefield International, London, UK, 2015, 326 pages, $120 hardback, $39.95 paperback ISBN 9781783482412.
Post re-unification Berlin—as place, space, historical time, and political sphere—has been subject to a plethora of academic readings since 1989, frequently undertaken within German, media, film, or urban studies. Research on the subject proliferated after the East-West division came to an end, Berlin’s transformation in particular accelerated, and material reminders of a divided city began to disappear. Landscape, cultural, and social change, especially in Berlin, reached their peak with the commencement of the demolition of the Palast der Republik in 2006.
Divided Subjects, Invisible Borders: Re-Unified Germany After 1989 contributes to this established body of scholarship, focusing on the breakup of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1989, the period of transition (Wende) that immediately followed, and the struggle for German re-unification. Specifically, Divided Subjects investigates “what those who lived within non-capitalist social systems made of life under capitalism, and, conversely, what life under capitalism made of them” (page 5). Ben Gook situates Germany’s present in the context of a longer trajectory of complex East/West relations, citing a “dialectic of remembering and forgetting” (page 15) in which citizens of the GDR were liberated from surveillance from the eastern German state, only to be subject to the control of their memories of that state within a unified Germany. Gook offers a critical timeline of developments in post-divide Germany, combining material and cultural analyses of social imaginaries, contested history and memory, and subject formation to argue that the end of the GDR and the emergence of a unified German state terminated once fertile possibilities for future revolution for East German citizens.
The discussion centers on theoretical materials, supported by a range of examples explored through key foci of the Wende, Ossi, and Wessi (East and West) identities, and the structuring of German subjecthood. The formation of post re-unification identity is framed in relation to particular locations, media, events, ever-shifting historical perspectives, and diverse objects of study—especially film, but also art, consumer goods, video games and other media, and the urban spaces of Berlin and Leipzig.
Although Divided Subjects can be framed within memory studies, cultural studies, or visual/film studies, the discussion covers a range that is beyond the usual deliberations of similar fields. Much of the book is dedicated to the complexity of post re-unification Berlin, a space overwritten by palimpsests, where place is variable and shifting, defined by complex constellations, routed via nostalgia and affect, and shot through with libidinal desires and contested imaginaries. Gook’s capacity to draw on the similarities between Berlin and other contexts is particularly valuable, moving beyond the immediate context of recent German history towards an ultimate critique of neo-liberal culture. This approach marks out Gook’s original undertaking in a field usually concerned with questions of landscape fragments and the politics of memory within Germany (rather than the implications beyond Berlin, or beyond Europe’s borders).
In the first pages of Divided Subjects, the end of the GDR is characterized in terms of Mauerfall (the fall of the Berlin Wall) and the subsequent Wende. Freud’s Nachträglichkeit (belated understanding) is central here, a retrospective approach oriented around the subject’s fragmented temporality and sense of the past, making 1989 an affective moment that “shifted subjects as much as structures” (page 47)—as evidenced in the proliferation of competing imaginaries and historical narratives in contemporary Germany (page 41). Trauma and dislocation are presented as affective “symptoms” of complex and contested memory, analyzed in terms of psychoanalytic theory, including retroversion, as a means to conclude that “causes are altered in their significance by the effects they produce” (page 21). In other words, Gook is interested not only in a linear historical timeline, concerned with direct cause and effect, but also in a fragmented retro-version that re-evaluates historically significant events from the perspective of a reconfigured present.
Divided Subjects is thus concerned not so much with the “really existing Berlin Wall,” but the Mauer im Kopf, or wall in the head, the collective symptoms that signify a divide beyond the physical landscape, a concern bound up with psychoanalytic theory and the philosophy of history. Though the wall itself, as a (now all-but-erased) physical presence, is not central to Gook’s discussion, the geography of such division is nevertheless important for questions of identity and ideology that are the center of this book. The specter of the wall facilitates a reconsideration of the structure of national identity and the function of the modern state more generally. The absent-yet-present wall also serves to highlight state-sanctioned attempts to erase the place that was once the GDR. Gook calls such erasures “strategies,” which, in the period following the fall of the wall “sought to discredit the GDR so thoroughly that eastern Germans would look back and see not ‘a place both confining and protective, both resented and loved’, but ‘a political wasteland’, just the way West Germans had always pictured it” (page 14). Gook expands this analysis into lived and contemporary practices and identities, troubling the melancholia that permeates post re-unification identity and pinpointing the uneven geographies of post-unification Germany, as well as the dominance of particular imaginaries over German national identity. Gook focuses on these less tangible changes alongside material erasures—the transformation of the built environment, closures of industrial centers, and the disappearance of everyday spaces of the GDR that predated later memory politics of erasure.
The author’s particular skill is in describing a nostalgia not for the past that was, but the future of that past that never came to be, for possibilities that remain unfulfilled. Gook is able to link this idea to specific sites, media and events, but also to German subjecthood as it interrelates with a revolution that did not eventuate—relating an event that never happened to real and lived encounters in the present. Indeed, the idea of a deferred or disappeared future revolution is perhaps the most intriguing element of Divided Subjects. As Gook suggests, through film, but also through other means “[t]he present can be interrogated by the imagined futures that the past once contained” (page 204), which leads back to the compelling question that informs the book as a whole: “Was there really nothing worth salvaging from the entire GDR, nothing there that could be of value in the West or in the present?” (page 15).
To address this question may seem a vast undertaking, and indeed, Gook dedicates several chapters to the material and cultural relics of the GDR, legitimating their rescue from a disregarded and quickly fading moment in time. Consumption of such relics and memories is presented as a more than the sentimental marketing of a lost past: it is a mode of expressing the longing for a lost place and time, whereby products—from foodstuffs to films—function as “bridges” to a now inaccessible site of past experience: the former GDR, brought into the “here and now” (pages 93, 108). In such relics Gook perceives resistance to the moralizing and often aggressive discourses of a “good” West German and “bad” East German identity and history (page 35), which emerged during and after the transition, or Wende, which left former GDR citizens steeped in a mourning that manifests as a nostalgia for aspects of the GDR past (including the moment of revolution in which many alternative futures were yet possible). This transition also manifested in the “strange in-between space” (real and imagined) occupied by Ossis during the Wende (page 115), and resulted in a contested social imaginary and fractured vision of homeland that persists in re-unified Germany. All of this is central to the dispossession of place that East Germans experienced (without physically moving) following re-unification.
For Gook, the built environment is the ground upon which the battle for a history already understood to be known and defined (by the West) takes place, resulting in “conflict over the control of space, place, and territory” (page 120), evidenced in building and “subtracting”—that is, erasing—persistent remnants and reminders that contradict the defined historical discourse. This erasure is materially evidenced in the built environment, for example, in Leipzig city center, around Alexander Platz, and with the demolition of the Palast. This is not just a localized or contemporary contest, but a conflict between progress-driven narratives (of the West), and legitimate concerns from eastern Germans about the unfulfilled promises of capitalism: “the Ossi experience and recognition of one system as a possibility among many flows into ambivalent eastern German relations with the present re-unified Germany, particularly under conditions of dejection and insecurity” (page 132).
In effect, what Gook pushes for is the basic recognition of eastern German’s right to a complex and nuanced public memory of their place of origin—the appreciation of an East German history, one which was formative in the lives of many; a temporal site where people were born, raised, and educated; an avowal of the profoundly traumatic moment of transition which was thrust upon GDR citizens in 1989. The moment of transition opened a crack in the symbolic order; forced the distancing and diminishment of a lifeworld that had once been close and real. In the latter half of the book, Gook makes reference to exemplars of this tension (from material culture, to media and art), citing Frederic Jameson’s work on realism and notions of Gemütlichkeit (belated understanding) and Heimat (sense of home) to expand upon the affective qualities of visual media, with film as a “productive object” implicated in collective remembrance and sentiment toward the past.
In this way, films, consumer products and (in the final pages), exhibitions and public spaces, serve as case studies for exploring nostalgia, contested histories, and politics, expanding discussions on mourning, melancholia, and fetishism as constituent elements of a post-GDR longing for an unfulfilled future and absent past. As the book reaches its conclusion, Gook reinforces the idea that the end of the GDR generated an open state in which possibilities had yet to be extinguished, and Gook makes a compelling claim in favor of residual possibilities contained in public memory—the future alternatives to the present that never came into being. Yet, “the Ossi majority…had their position as historical subjects dissolved by the re-unified Germany of the 1990’s, abject and mired in their unfree past” (page 208). This discussion resonates with Frankfurt School theorists (particularly Benjamin and Adorno, but also Kluge) in describing “a melancholy over defeated revolutions” (page 192), situated in open and fragmentary forms of history. Specifically, Gook refers to Benjamin’s theory of experience, grounded in Erleibnis and Erfahrung, in which the isolated experience that is Erleibnis dominates memory, leaving subjects without the longed for and connected remembrance of the past that might be more characteristic of the deep and lasting collective memory attributed to Erfahrung.
One of the most persuasive arguments made in Divided Subjects is the assertion of a right to ambivalence for former GDR citizens. Gook examines the way in which this uncertainty about life lived under a brutal regime, and about German re-unification, too, is intertwined with imaginaries, symbolic orders, and dominant discourses of a “unified” Germany which fail to recognize the legitimate experiences of those Germans who lived in the GDR as part of the national story. He reads the sudden changes from 1989 onwards from the eastern German perspective, suggesting that “the social imaginary of the GDR was thrown aside, superseded, made obsolete” (page 119) which led to a contestation of the GDR view of history, a contest that covered every aspect of GDR life. Many of these changes—real and symbolic—produced fractured subjects whose libidinal desires for certain kinds of remembrance evolved from the rend between the memory of a lived past, and an imagined future that, rather than open to new possibilities (as it appeared in the moment of transformation), was increasingly beyond the control of Ossis.
Indeed, this reading, and Gook’s support for the right of former GDR citizens (and their families) to remain ambivalent about the GDR and their post re-unification lives, to feel fond or nostalgic toward aspects of that past, or to reject narratives of a unified Germany that extinguish any good memories of that past, is particularly novel in a discourse that has often been disinterested in—even dismissive of—everyday lives lived under East German fascism. As Gook points out, East German citizens have routinely been denied the right to mourn their (collective or individual) past, or reshape dominant discourses of that past in a re-unified Germany (the demolition of the Palast is perhaps the most well-known example of the resistance toward any diversity of memory about the GDR). Taking this discussion further, Gook moves beyond contested memory or history, beyond media or nostalgia or consumption alone, and into the formation of subjects in re-unified Germany, through particular events, affective moments, and contested and absent spaces and times.
Divided Subjects, Invisible Borders provides a detailed introduction to the complexity of memory and space in Germany (and particularly Berlin) following re-unification, and substantially expands on a number of key and emerging considerations relevant to scholars interested in recent German history. In particular, the combination of media, landscape, history, and politics brings new insight to a field that frequently addresses the problems of re-unified Germany from a limited disciplinary perspective (for example, solely focused on film, or grounded purely in fields such as German studies or comparative literature). Familiar theorists of Berlin’s landscape do not play a major role in this text—for example geographer Karen Till (2005), and Svetlana Boym (2001) or Andreas Huyssen (2003). However, Gook makes much of many other theorists, including Freud and Lacan, Derrida, Adorno, Bauman and Benjamin, in order to deal with an unfinished past that reappears in the present, and materialises in neo-liberal configurations that have emerged in Germany since 1989. Geographers may note that there is limited reliance on urban studies or cultural geography, but the reading of the landscape and historical narrative through geographical division, as well as notions around affective and emotional encounters, will nevertheless be of particular interest to those working with emotional geographies and affective atmospheres (Anderson 2006, 2009) as well as anyone with a particular interest in cityscapes, visual media, memory, and history.
Overall, Gook frames the GDR in crisis and change as a dynamic moment that, even after the fact, remains “enigmatic, unfinished business” (page 273). The unresolved nature of this process has ultimately enabled Gook to successfully address the question of “how those millions of people who carried out the 1989 revolution have ended up materially and politically alienated in a re-unified Germany” (page 274). This interest indicates the deeper concerns of Divided Subjects—to question the current stance in the global West towards the future, and to articulate a certain kind of disaffection common to a post-89 world, which in turn provides critical reflections on neo-liberal capitalist society – an innovative interdisciplinary approach that reveals far more than it omits.
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